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Griffin on Tech: Going Rogan - what to learn from Spotify's woes and Wordle's acquisition

Peter Griffin, Editor. 04 February 2022, 4:31 pm

Joe Rogan is an infuriating interviewer, and not just because he allegedly spreads misinformation about Covid-19.

Have you listened to him? Rogan's vast audience - over 10 million people stream each episode of his podcast, sees him attract big-name guests like Tesla founder Elon Musk, celebrity astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson and dissident whistleblower Edward Snowden.

But when he gets these larger than life characters into the interviewee's chair he totally squanders the opportunity, going off on inane tangents and failing to ask the most obvious of questions. Rogan is no Howard Stern, who continues to have an incredible ability to get famous people to open up and reveal themselves. 

That can make for compelling listening, as crass as Stern often is. Rogan is instead, in my opinion at least, the epitome of the saying, 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing' especially when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines. 

Rogan Money.jpg

But there's a reason why Spotify was willing to defend Rogan and see rocker Neil Young remove his music catalogue from the platform. In the commoditised world of music streaming, Rogan is an exclusive property that isn't available to Apple Music or Deezer. Spotify reportedly paid US$100 million for exclusive rights to The Joe Rogan Experience podcast.

But Neil Young? He might have a valid moral argument in protesting against Rogan, but his tunes are available everywhere. It's all about money. Exclusive content means more ears listening to Spotify for longer so it was clear which horse the music streamer would back. 

The New York Times also knows the value of exclusive content. Its shrewd move to buy the popular Wordle web-based word game that everyone suddenly started playing late last year, is taken from the same playbook. The Times is associated with high-minded journalism, but its games and puzzles are a massive drawcard. Regardless of whether Wordle remains free to access long-term or disappears behind a paywall, one of the hottest apps on the internet currently will drive eyeballs to the Times, which reportedly picked it up for a seven-figure sum. That seems like a much better investment to me.

The lesson from these deals is that in digital content businesses, offering what everyone else also has isn't going to cut it. Spotify's financials illustrate that point. It may have 172 million paying subscribers, but in the first nine months of 2021, its operating profit margin was just 1.4%. Music streaming isn't a cash cow, hence Spotify's move to branch out into podcasts, as problematic as the content may be.

Tech platforms as publishers

The Joe Rogan controversy also highlights the problem of tech platforms as publishers. Spotify didn't have a misinformation policy before 260 scientists last month wrote an open letter in protest at Rogan's vaccine scepticism. Like Facebook, Youtube, Apple and Twitter before it, Spotify has done the bare minimum to moderate and police the content on its platform. It was much easier when it simply had to put explicit language warnings on songs. With its ballooning network of podcasts, that is an increasingly untenable position to take as Facebook and Twitter in particular discovered during the last US presidential election.

While those platforms are sensitive to the concerns of advertisers who are liable to pull their ads, at least temporarily, to distance themselves from scandal, Spotify draws its income from subscriptions. More musicians may join the boycott, but delisting their songs from the largest streaming network is also going to hit them hard in the pocket.

The reality is that for every wacky, pseudoscientific Rogan podcast, there are hundreds of Youtube clips and Facebook posts peddling similar misinformation. It will take more than celebrity protests or boycott movements to force the major digital platforms to take the misinformation problem seriously. 

It will take regulatory measures requiring them to adhere to content standards with independent oversight and stiff penalties for non-compliance. It will require the big digital platforms to properly invest in filtering and moderation technology to clean up their networks to avoid whopping fines. 

Fundamentally, it will take a serious threat to the bottom line of these companies because the only thing that is motivating them to tolerate misinformation is their ability to make money from it.


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